Midsized shows suffer, but upscale auds help in key cities

CHICAGO — If you evaluate today’s Broadway road using retail store terms, you might conclude a legit road show has to be either a full-scale megastore boasting colossal sales or a small, high-end boutique with healthy profit margins and regular customers to succeed. Otherwise, you could end up with the same problems as middle-of-the-road emporia like Sears Roebuck or Toys “R” Us — squeezed toward submission.

Fewer playing weeks (243 compared with 322 last season) have resulted in a dip in road grosses from 2005-06, with a total of $251 million to date slipping from $286 million over the same period last year. But the first half of the 2006-07 season nonetheless shows reasons for cautious optimism.

As expected, the million-dollar club — shows that routinely gross at least $1 million per week in most markets — now has expanded its membership to include “The Lion King,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked” (soon to be holding down three memberships), “Mamma Mia” and newcomer “Jersey Boys.”

Old reliables like “Mamma Mia” show no signs of slowing. General manager Nina Lannan says it’s booking dates through 2008 and then may do another sit-down in Toronto. “There’s no end in sight,” she says.

And based on a Chi advance already well in excess of $7 million, months away from opening, “The Color Purple” is all set to join this lucrative group this spring. In fact, “The Color Purple” may well have two companies out by this time next year.

Ditto “Jersey Boys,” which got off to a stellar start on the road in San Francisco this month. All that should produce a healthy bump in road totals by the official end of the season in June. Journalists will be declaring a turnaround.

But actually, those cheery figures mask some problems.

“It’s hard to be in the middle,” says “Wicked” producer David Stone. In other words, the cost structure of the Production Contract still makes it virtually impossible for a mid-range hit to survive on the road.

Exhibit A here is “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” a solid performer on Broadway that folded its tent last week in Miami after some losing road weeks. “Scoundrels” plans to retool, cut costs, shrink the orchestra, reduce salaries and re-emerge in the new year as an attraction under Equity’s so-called “tiered” (i.e., cheaper) contract. It now has the problem of convincing markets down the road that the downsized show won’t look or sound too much different. It’s hardly an ideal state of affairs.

Presenters say the show — which was initially charging $375,000 a week plus 10% — was costing many of them money because it lacked a national brand and priced itself as if it had one. If $75,000 or $100,000 per week can be shaved off the costs — as now seems likely — it will be a different beast. But still, it’s a cautionary tale for coming tours such as “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Clearly, the tiered contract is key for anyone but the million-dollar boys. “Frankly, I don’t think we could have gone out without it,” says Ken Gentry, producer of “The Light in the Piazza” on the road. “That agreement saved the show.”

But with its lower costs, the Tony-winning tuner is playing to expectations. Some nights in some places bring empty seats, but reviews for “Piazza” have almost all been love letters. And the tuner has shrewdly marketed itself to the high end. “I don’t think we’re getting many of the occasional theatergoers,” Gentry says. “We’re really emphasizing the show’s credentials to people who understand Broadway.”

That’s one apparent change in the air. When it comes to smaller shows, the campy little tuners, pedestrian revivals and thin revues seem to have run their course. If you’re not selling a blockbuster, you’re better off hawking newer, hipper luxury goods in big cities.

“Doubt” is another example of this phenom. Touring topliner Cherry Jones doesn’t sell tix in all hinterland markets, but she does in key towns. And upscale crowds everywhere this fall seemed aware the show won a Pulitzer Prize. “It’s a challenging play talking about America,” says booker Stephen Lindsay of the Road Company. “But it’s doing business.”

So, it seems, is “Twelve Angry Men,” another relatively upmarket affair touring on much the same model and a title not seen before in most markets.

Of course, it’s still better to join that million-dollar club. “The Pirate Queen,” which had plans to hit the road very fast, made an aggressive play to join this fall. But presenters got nervous after a mixed reception for the show’s Chi tryout run. They’re now tending to take a wait-and-see approach, pending pre-Gotham revisions currently under way. “We want to see how it looks on Broadway,” says Gina Vernacci of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center.

As presenters are well aware, there’s no half-way happiness on the road anymore. Not at these prices.

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